Back on Jan. 5, when I wandered into the marsh near the Bayshore Mall to interview some homeless campers, most everyone was still talking about the big flood that blew out some of their camps one early Saturday morning a couple months before. A water pipe had bust somewhere nearby -- crash and roar and then here came the water, four-inches-deep of it rushing in like the Russian River, said camper William Dean Hermann. Like a lot of others, he and his wife, Cassie, had had to up-stakes in a hurry.
"I said, ‘Honey, put on your boots, put on your coat, grab your pack, just be ready,'" Hermann said. "I put on my boots, coat, pack. I looked up again -- now the water's six inches. Didn't stop for hours."
A kinda scrawny but fairly clean-cut man stood nearby, listening. He wore a fuzzy red-and-blue plaid flannel shirt, blue jeans and crisp white sneakers. When Hermann finished talking, he took a turn.
"I woke up in eight inches of water," the man said in a steeply pitched hill twang.
His name was Danny Ray Jones. And, now, most everyone in that part of the marsh might be talking about him, because sometime between late night Sunday, Jan. 23, and early Monday morning the 24th, Danny Ray Jones died just outside his tent.
Deputy Coroner Roy Horton said Jones, who was 51, most likely died from a prescription drug overdose possibly complicated by alcohol. "He had a prescription of oxycodone just three days old that was supposed to last a month, and the bottle was empty," said Horton, adding that people he interviewed in the marsh said Jones might have had a drinking problem.
It will be a few weeks before the drug screen comes back, Horton said.
Horton has spoken with Jones' family, including a brother who's a long-haul trucker and who had stopped a couple of times on his way through town to check on Danny Ray at his tent behind the mall.
That day I met Danny Ray, he told me he'd lived in Eureka about seven years but had only been sleeping in the marsh for a month -- ever since he got kicked out of his house.
"I've never been homeless in my life," he said, his voice choking up and his eyes watering. "I'm a working fool. But I got hurt on the job -- fell off a ladder and shattered my hip, building a house. They put in a new hip, but now they want me to do it again."
He was waiting for an insurance settlement to come through. And he'd had some financial problems, he said, with some family back in Tennessee. Although, he was really proud of his son, he said, and walked to his tent to bring out a walking stick his son had carved for him. When he got that settlement, maybe he and his long-time friend, Hobo, would get a place in town. He spoke with a poignant formality. He seemed angry to be where he was, and at what people might think of him.
"I'm clean," he said, defiantly, gesturing at his tidy campsite. "I get my garbage out of here every day."
Homeless advocate John Shelter, who has worked with homeless campers for years, said for someone like Danny Ray Jones -- in pain and facing another surgery and who knows when that might be -- it can be easy to lose hope out in the marsh.
"He was in a lot of pain and the cold wetness just made things worse," Shelter said. "He ate too many pain pills and washed them down with some wine."